The role of the Law remains Christendom’s hottest topic even though little of Christendom seems capable of articulating it as such. As the heirs of Luther, we have a distinct advantage. Part of his genius was that he was able to put his finger on things and was able to distill 1500 years of Theology so succinctly. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is precisely what the fathers were striving for even if they lacked Luther’s vocabulary and definitions. It is also what Thomas Aquinas and the Medievals were trying to do, and it was the pope and Erasmus’ fundamental problem.
Of course, it didn’t begin with the Fathers. It is present in the prophets. Nathan’s encounter with King David is a perfect example, but so also is the entire life of Joseph and Hosea. But it comes to a head, as all eternal things do, with Our Lord Himself. It is not that He was having trouble with it. It is that His hearers were. Thus He explicitly proclaims that He has not come to abolish the Law. It is doubtful, by the way, that anyone thought He had. They were attacking Him, accusing Him of this untenable position. The same is true of St. Paul. He must ask, “Should we sin all the more that grace may abound?” and then answer emphatically, “May it never come to be!” Some translators have suggested a paraphrase of that literal construction as “God forbid!” I rather like that. I think it renders better into English Paul’s horror at the idea.
If we hold an advantage in Christendom with a closeness to Luther on this topic, so also do suffer from a weakness. Because we can name the terms, even recognize to a small degree, the issue, we think we have mastered it. In fact, Luther is not exaggerating at all when he says that distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel is the highest art. He does not consider himself a master of it. We should recognize that we are not as good at it as he was. Repent. We have not wanted to do the hard work of Theology or see its consequences.
The basic tension is that it does seem almost as though the Lord did come to abolish the Law. And we see that He has not. He interprets the Law spiritually, revealing what has always been His will, not merely that we refrain from murder but that we also guard our secret hearts against anger and jealousy and that we bridle our tongues. The Law is good. It is God’s Holy will. He reveals Himself in the Law. But as good as His Law is, it does not allow us to approach Him. It might guide and instruct us at times, but it always accuses us. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Not even close. The Lord is holy. We should be holy, and we are not.
Moses could do more than warn us, no more than preach the Law, tell us what was right. But the Lord Jesus goes one step further. He fulfills the Law in Himself. He is a prophet like Moses but greater, but He, the virgin-born, is free of original sin. He obeys the Law in our place. He does everything it demands. He refrains from all that it forbids. He does not sin. He does not grow angry. He does not lust. He is not greedy. And then He allows the Law to do to Him, to punish Him, as though He had broken it in every part. He actively keeps the Law and then He allows the Law to have its way with Him as the Law would with a sinner. The Law sends Him to Hell upon the cross and then puts Him to death.
It is not abolished. The Law is still good. It is still God’s holy will. But it is fulfilled. And thus it cannot accuse you. It has been kept for you and you are declared holy and righteous.
Thus Jesus eats with sinners. He eats with sinners because He has made Himself accessible. He allows us to approach. He hears our prayers. He welcomes us. Not because the Law has been abolished but because it has been fulfilled and what was foreshadowed in the Temple is not present in creation in the Flesh of a Man. God is one of us come to fulfill the Law and be our Bridegroom, to snatch us out of this vale of tears to Himself in heaven. When this good work is complete you, there will be tension between Law and Gospel, no fallen ears that misunderstand or fear the abuse of freedom and grace. Then there will be only the Word of the Lord and it will be good. For your will will be in perfect conformity with your Father in heaven and you will be free of the old Adam who now clings to you. Until then, we pray God give us the faith that endures to the end and the wisdom to deal with His Word now that begins in the fear of the Lord, that is, that begins in repentance and trusts in God’s power and will to save.